The event is the International Snow Science Workshop, Oct. 1-6, a biennial conference that is the premier event in North America for the exchange of information about such things as hoar frost, velocities of moving snow and avalanche hazard mapping. Those are the topics of but three of the 154 papers and several field trips to neighboring locations in the San Juan Mountains scheduled during the six-day event.
Organizers say it's an unusual merging of the theoretical and the practical that sometimes also produces successful collaborations as researchers with Ph.D.s share notes and the platform with ski patrollers, highway avalanche forecasters and others.
"I can't think of another discipline that allows the unwashed to get up in front of a group on the same footing (as more formally trained scientists) and explain what they're doing," says Don Bachman. Now living in Bozeman, Mont., Bachman was ski patrol director at Crested Butte in the 1960s and a research forecaster in the San Juan Avalanche Project in the 1970s.
"It's an unusual group of people," adds Bachman. "It's not like the podiatrists who go to a ski resort and meet, and after coming in off the golf course talk about bunions."
Because of the nature of both climate and geography, avalanches are rare in the East, confined mostly to a small area of New Hampshire. In the West, they are a menace almost everywhere in locations of steeper terrain, sporadic snowstorms, stronger winds and more intense cold. All contribute to unstable snowpacks.
The first such organized snow science conference was held in 1978 at Banff. Now it is held every other year, with every third conference in Canada. It was last held in Colorado in 1992, at Breckenridge.
The organization includes both Canada and the United States because, as Bachman notes, "the border is pretty blurry when it comes to avalanche potential." Representatives of 16 countries are registered to attend next week's sold-out event.
Papers are the staple of the conferences. Some presentations this year will explore histories of major avalanches, such as those in early 2003 that caused the death of 14 people in two separate cases in the Canadian Rockies, one involving helicopter skiers near Revelstoke and another that engulfed a school group at Rogers Pass. Altogether, 29 fatalities were recorded that winter in Canada, the greatest loss of life since the winter of 1964-65.
Another paper, by Sam Colbeck, a U.S. Army researcher for many years, explores the growth of surface hoar, also called hoar frost. Formed on cold, clear nights prevalent at inland continental areas, including the Rocky Mountains, hoar creates weak layers of snow that result in avalanches. Often, the hoar is created in narrow elevation bands, catching skiers by surprise on otherwise safe slopes.
This weak layer has claimed the lives of the most backcountry enthusiasts through the years, says Andy Gleason, a Durango-based Ph.D. candidate who reviewed papers for the conference. "It is very thin, but it is very dangerous," he says of the hoar frost layer.
Like the conference, Gleason's background blends both the practical and academic. He has worked as an avalanche forecaster for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, assigned to look after three highways in the San Juan Mountains, including Hwy. 550 between Durango and Ouray. That segment includes Molas Divide and Red Mountain Pass. The town of Silverton, located between the two crossings, has often been cut off from the outside world for a week during particularly difficult winters.
"It's the most avalanche-prone highway in the United States," says Gleason. "The only one with more is Rogers Pass, in Canada. There are 104 named avalanche paths on Red Mountain Pass that have the ability to reach the highway."
This year, the conference will feature three people who were involved in forecasting or controlling avalanches at Red Mountain Pass in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Included will be Noel Peterson, who pioneered the use of artillery to artificially trigger avalanches along highways in the San Juans, including both Red Mountain and Wolf Creek passes.
Also on hand to give the keynote speech will be Ed LaChapelle, of McCarthy, Alaska. A seminal figure in the study of snow, he was an early snow ranger at Alta and then a professor at the University of Washington. He was the principle consultant for a groundbreaking avalanche study project in the San Juan Mountains in the early 1970s.
The San Juans are also the site of at least one other major study that also has the potential to be groundbreaking. The phenomenon of dust-on-snow has been studied for several years at a site near Red Mountain Pass established by the Silverton-based Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies. The dust is more frequent during spring but can occur even in mid-winter. Chemical analysis indicates the dust mostly originates in the deserts of Arizona and Utah, although such dust has been traced even to Asia.
Of potentially greatest importance is the probing of whether this dust reduces the albedo, or reflectivity, of snow. Snow darkened by dust absorbs more sunlight, which in turn causes the snow to melt more rapidly. In this way, the dust could be both a consequence of global warming, because other areas become hotter and hence drier, as well as a contributor to warmer temperatures.
Bachman says Telluride should expect more quiet than rowdy from the conference. If a ski patrol convention featured one day of presentations, a day of partying and four days of recovery, this one will be four days of presentations and a bit of conviviality.
Yet snow researchers and avalanche professionals are also socially cohesive. Among those absent from this year's workshop will be Mammoth Mountain's Walt Rosenthal, an academic researcher who doubled as a ski patroller. Rosenthal, and two others, were killed by poisonous gases emitted by a fumarole at Mammoth last winter. Mammoth raised money for the families of the victims by offering lift ticket sales on a special day. "I had a ticket to ski there that day, way back here in Montana," explains Bachman.
The conference begins Sunday and runs through next Friday. The event itself is sold out, but there are several activities in which non-passholders and locals may participate. On Monday, Oct. 2, a slideshow called Snowstruck: In The Grip of Avalanches, and a booksigning with author Jill Fredston will be held in the Big Billies Ballroom at the Peaks at 8 p.m. Call 728-0460 for more information. ISSW Movie Night will be held on Tuesday, Oct. 3, with A History of Snow and Avalanches In the San Juan Mountains at 7:30 p.m. in the Palm Theatre. Special guests Johnnie Stevens, Senior Mahoney, Norm Benjamin, Skip Lange, Jerry Roberts and Lance Waring will be at the screening. Call Jeff Campbell at 209-3497 for more information. For more information on the conference, visit www.issworkshop.org or call 728-3829.